I’m all for public transport. I’ve traveled around Europe and Japan where population density makes public transport both economical and a joy to use (even if it’s not necessarily cheaper than owning a car). Actually, everyone loves public transport and so when Colorado’s FasTrack went before voters in 2004 it’s not surprising that it won and folks volunteered to have taxes raised to pay for it. Except they didn’t collect nearly enough.
I was opposed to that measure then, but I knew, judging from the my well traveled, equally public transport loving circle of friends that it was going to pass and that everyone thought I was being a jerk. However, the most recent “stunning news” is that rails will cost an estimated $469 million more than expected. FasTrack authorities we’re only off by some 710%, so, you know, no big deal.
Bigger communities suffer bigger cost overruns. Boston’s “Big Dig” is still being paid off and estimated to cost about 4x its original (inflation adjusted) $6 billion. Seattle’s downtown Sound Transit Light Rail tunnel similarly was off by 100% and that’s after cutting back on the project.
The problem is that there is no incentive to avoid cost over-runs. Like many things in business and policy, sandbagging on the expected costs means that those in charge have jobs, create jobs, and generally look and feel good, but it doesn’t mean we’ll actually have trains that carry us to and from Denver from outlying areas. As Oxford professor Bent Flyvbjerg points out, big projects almost always suffer from cost overruns and the reasons are simple. Authorities are lying about the costs and we all want to believe them.
Folks aren’t lying out of malice alone, but rather because these big infrastructure projects are things that everyone really wants! How can you be against your city getting a sleek new train or a traffic mitigating tunnel? Less green-house gasses, better lifestyle, and maybe even tourism dollars to witness your world leading technology? What kind of anti-social luddite is against that?
Really, though, that no one could be against it ought to have been a warning. Here in Colorado, a state with a population density of 19 people per square km, we’re hoping to be able to justify rapid transit just as nice as what we might have seen during a visit to Amsterdam (Dutch population density = 491/km2 or more than 20 times!) [data from Wolfram Alpha]How could we be surprised that there costs estimates of rapid transit weren’t altogether honest? Would anyone have been willing to pay if we we’re told, that even after taxes, we’d have to pay around 20 times as much for a ticket to ride?
Today, Denver metro residents are like poker players facing another buy-in after they’ve lost their first stake. Do we throw good money after bad in the hopes we’ll at least get something for it, or do we step back from the table and accept our losses. Remember, everyone wants sleek efficient public transport, but that doesn’t change the economics of how we pay for it.